Why students prefer digital course materials — and the impact they make

Young African American woman studying on tablet

No matter their major, university, or year in school, most students can agree on one thing: buying textbooks is one of the more frustrating experiences that college has to offer. But the recent unexpected shift to online learning and digital course materials is making this less of an obstacle. Four students from across the nation shared their experiences with their textbooks and course materials — and told us why access to digital has changed the way they view studying.

One of the most common complaints students have about their course materials is the actual process of acquiring them. Sarah F., a political science student at the University of Missouri, dreaded having to visit the bookstore at the beginning of each term.

“The only way you can avoid the bookstore is ordering your books online, but there’s a waiting period, so sometimes you don’t even get your books in time for those first couple of homework assignments. I hate having to organize all of that — it’s probably one of the worst things I have to do in college.”

The recent shift to online learning has already led to a shift in course materials in most cases. As faculty look forward with uncertainty, they know that comprehensive, flexible, and cost-effective solutions are key to a successful course, no matter the future of their course delivery. The College Board estimates that a year’s worth of textbooks and supplies can cost the average student a staggering $1,240.1 Zach D., a marketing student at the University of Iowa, has found that, while the cost of textbooks can be frustrating, there’s something even worse — the cost of books that go unused.

“I spent $200 on this book and will only get $20 at the end of the semester for it, when I didn’t even need it in the first place.”

In his experience, the digital course materials he’s been assigned have actually been utilized in class and have helped him keep up on his own time, while physical materials have often gone untouched.

For all four students, digital course materials have been more affordable than physical materials (Zach estimates they’ve saved him several hundred dollars this year alone.) And they all agreed that digital materials were more useful to them.

Rachel H., a business administration major at the University of Colorado Boulder, has discovered a whole host of game-changing benefits to using digital materials. “It saves time in the first place because you get your book on the very first day and can start studying right away, instead of waiting to get the book in the mail. And if you’re trying to search a textbook for something, you can literally do it with your keyboard. Also, a lot of the Inclusive Access that I have has additional online study materials in it, like flashcards and practice tests. It’s extra studying my professor doesn’t give me, but is still a part of the textbook, so I can go in and study in different ways that they provide…it’s definitely had a positive impact on my grades.”

Digital materials also help students by allowing them to learn when, where, and how it works best for them, especially during these unprecedented times. Jesus H., a business management student at California State University Fresno, found that, because of their flexible nature, the digital materials he had access to sometimes contributed even more to his success than attending lectures did.

“For an accounting class I took, I learned a lot through MyLab™ Accounting. It prepared me a lot for my exams, and I passed because of the digital materials. It was convenient, it allowed me to save time, and I could study anywhere. It was very beneficial, and because of that I’m now trying to stay with classes I know will be using digital materials instead of print books.”

Through the Covid-19 lockdown and institutional shift to distance learning, technology is what has kept us together. As almost every aspect of students’ lives becomes digitized, it’s no wonder that pairing technology and education works so well for them. The benefits of digital products and course materials were clear even before the recent disruption to education, and have become even more apparent with the widespread shift to online and HyFlex learning models.

A study by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation even found that when students take courses that engage digitally and in-person, content mastery can occur twice as quickly, and pass rates for at-risk students can increase by 33%.2 Sarah is certain that she’s enjoyed those benefits throughout her college experience, thanks to digital course materials.

“I’m kind of able to be successful either way, but it’s about making it easier for me to be successful. It’s about putting everything in one place and keeping me organized — letting me search through and study the materials I need to, and giving me assignments that I can complete online that are more interactive than they would be otherwise. The culmination of all those things make it easier for me to succeed. Students can still succeed when they’re using paper materials, but I think having the digital materials gives us even more advantages and helps us be just that much more successful.”

During this historic time, faculty around the country in all disciplines are adopting digital solutions to support delivery of their courses and help improve affordability and student success.

Explore Pearson digital solutions for the courses you teach.

Sources
1Average estimated undergraduate budgets by sector, 2019-20,” College Board
2Student Success: Digital Learning,” The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation